Back in 1998 when I was completing a Bachelor of Teaching at the University of Tasmania I encountered a pedagogical technique called, Critical Literacy. The idea was that students would learn to read a text in a way that ”promotes a deeper understanding of socially constructed concepts, such as power, inequality or injustice in human relationships,’ questioning the attitudes embedded within. Typically our practice lessons would have us analysing cereal boxes and television advertisements. I am not a teacher and have little idea of how far critical literacy has been taken into the classroom and how effective it has been as a pedagogical approach. I am aware, however, of the emphasis in the English curriculum on the exploration and the utlilisation of persuasive language. Again students are invited both to develop and display their skills at persuasive writing, and to critique the persuasive language techniques of other writing, typically speeches and opinion pieces.
Perhaps of value in every classroom would be the facilitation of discussion groups based on a series of questions that form the Good Thinker’s Tool Kit, known as WRAITEC. What do you/we mean by…?; Reasons (an opinion must have reasons); Assumptions (that underlie the thing); Inferences (If…Then…;Implications); Truth (is it true?); Examples and Evidence; Counterexamples.
All these approaches have merit and potential. Yet I doubt that space in the classroom would be found for a thorough media analysis of the beheading of US journalist James Foley by the Islamic State aka ISIS and ISIL. What teacher would be brave enough to tackle that?! Juxtaposing the video footage put out by IS itself, with the use made of it by the mainstream news media of the West.
Yet it is vital that we are invited to consider the socially constructed nature of media reality in these most brutal situations. That we recognise that issues of power and control are at work. We must hone the tools to see that everywhere from the tabloid’s front page, the ABC news headlines, and the IS video itself we are not presented with truth or reality but with another attempt at persuasion, an effort to shock. That if we are to arrive at anything close to the real story we must ask many questions, challenge the authorised version of events, right down to the order in which events are presented. Ever since the BBC was found to have re-ordered footage of a protest at a coal mine in the 1980s to persuade the viewer that the police charged into the crowd after the crowd had turned aggressive and not, as it was later shown, that the police charged and the crowd retaliated in response, I have been suspicious of all news presentations.
I am not of course disputing the ruthless swipe of the blade. Here are a few links. In each, use has been made of the IS footage. A critical literacy approach to this film would be of much value, exploring camera angles, lighting, colour and so on. But frankly, I can’t even look at them.
I do not doubt that James Foley was beheaded, or that he was beheaded by IS. Yet I cannot help asking whether the US sat on its hands, happy to use this man’s tragic death to whip up outrage to justify what is to follow. I cannot help but observe the manner in which here in Australia the Abbott government has pounced on the beheading to further sanction the implementation of even tighter surveillance and security laws. I can’t help noticing that every time there is a desire by government to ramp up surveillance and security of citizenry, some vile act of so-called terrorism is thrust at us via our television screens. Even the use of the words ”terror” and ”terrorists” require a deep, thorough critique, since surely those protesting in Ferguson ”Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” style are angry because terrified of their militarised police?
There are other questions that might be asked. Ones not present in the three techniques referred to above:- What is the rest of it? What am I not being shown? What exists behind the scenes, out of view, obscured, obfuscated, denied? Answers may be speculative but nevertheless such questioning helps to shape an inquiry by looking not only at what is presented but what has been left out. The obvious question then becomes Why? or For what purpose? Which can easily be answered by a return to critical literacy.
For example, I can’t help reminding myself that IS is a construction, a creation that emerged from and was fostered by those who created the initial conditions for this very emergence – the US and it’s allies including Saudi Arabia. I might further point to US foreign policy and its strategy to destabilise the Middle East to help contextualise this awful beheading.
It is not the beheading of James Foley that is at the heart of the issue of media and government presentations of reality. It is the manipulation of our emotions, particularly revulsion and fear. The James Foley beheading is not a sensation and should not be treated in a sensationalist manner. Every high school student could do with engaging with this point. And perhaps then we may let James Foley rest in peace.